The “Golden Rule” is the name given by Bible translators to a principle Jesus taught in His Sermon on the Mount. That is to say, the actual words “golden rule” are not found in Scripture, just as the words “sermon on the mount” are also not found. These titles were later added by Bible translation teams when describing different passages of Scripture in order to make Bible study a little easier. The phrase “Golden Rule” began to be ascribed to this passage of Scripture during the 16-17th centuries, as it was already a popular saying at that time. This is important to note because when talking about the Golden Rule, Christians sometimes unknowingly and incorrectly ascribe it to Jesus’ actual words.
What we call the Golden Rule refers to Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Jesus knew the human heart and its selfishness. In fact, in the preceding verse, He describes human beings as “you who are evil.” This is important to grasp because, as He continues to say in v. 16, human beings still know how to give good gifts to their children even though they are evil and selfish by nature. This verse leads into the Golden Rule which says to actively pursue and treat others as we would like to be treated in all things.
The English Standard Version translates it well: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” By ending the “rule” with the “Law and the Prophets,” Jesus has condensed the entire Old Testament into this principle. This was something the Jews of Jesus’ day would have known by their knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, as Moses wrote: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). Again, we see even here the implication that people are naturally self-lovers due to sin (Jeremiah 17:19), so it gave the audience a place to start in how they should treat others: how they want to be treated.
As good as the Golden Rule is in its command to treat others, it also reminds us how selfish we really are! Jesus’ audience could relate to this command (as the Jews of Moses’ day could) because people universally demand respect, love, and appreciation whether they deserve it or not. Jesus knew this and used it to show how His people should treat others: how they themselves wanted to be loved, respected, and appreciated. This rule to treat others with such high regard is also the second in the greatest of commandments, followed only by the command to love God Himself (Matthew 22:39).
What is interesting to note about this tenet of the Christian Scriptures is that no other mainline religious or philosophical system is its equal. The biblical Golden Rule is not the “ethic of reciprocity” that is so commonly espoused by non-Christian moralists. Frequently, liberal critics, and/or secular humanists attempt to explain the golden rule as a common ethic shared by all religions. This is not the case. When Jesus gave this command in Matthew 7:12, it was radically different from all other forms of it—except for the Jewish Torah—used up to that time or since. The difference is subtle, but very important. The biblical Golden Rule is a positive command to show active love, as opposed its negative, passive counterparts. A quick survey of Eastern religions and philosophies will expose this common inversion, some of which have been described as the “silver rule” due to its inverted command:
• Confucianism: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you” Analects 15:23.
• Hindusim: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you” Mahabharata 5:1517.
• Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Udana-Varga 5:18
The Golden Rule as stated by Jesus is radically different in that it is an active, positive command to do good to others, as opposed to the negative, restraining commands to not hurt others. The command to love is what separates the Christian ethic from every other system’s ethic. In fact, the Bible is so radical in its command to actively love that Christians are told to love even their enemies, something unheard of in other religions (Matthew5:43-44; cf. Exodus 23:4-5).
Obeying the Christian ethic and imperative to love others is a mark of a true Christian (John 12:35). In fact, Christians cannot even claim to love God if they don’t actively love other people as well because, “If someone says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). The Golden Rule encapsulates this idea and is unique to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures